The wonderfully frightening world of Hanatarash

by Beatrice Steele |

In 1985, a Japanese noise band staged one of the most memorable and controversial gigs in the history of music. The audience were required to sign waivers before the show, which took place at the Tokyo Super Loft. Frontman Yamantaka Eye, known for his dangerous, disturbing, and always destructive stage antics, disappeared during the performance. He re-entered the venue in a bulldozer, demolishing his way through the club’s doors and onto the stage. After climbing out of the subsequent wreckage, he then attempted to throw a Molotov cocktail into the debris, but was luckily prevented from doing so. Allegedly, the venue’s repairs cost ¥600,000, which adds up to roughly £4,500. Hanatarash quickly found themselves with no venues willing to take them, and their live career was only resumed after Eye agreed to a more sedate style of performance.

Hanatrash at the Tokyo Suoer Loft, 1985 | GinSatoh

Noise music, which was influenced strongly by Japan’s punk and psychedelic scenes, often seems more like a version of some particularly intense performance art than actual music. Noise is also closely related to the idea of danger music, in which musicians and their instruments are considered to harm themselves and the audience during a performance. Some have branded noise ‘antimusic’ due to its rejection of just about every conceivable musical cliché, and the certainty of a noise song never being a contender for the Top 40. However, the experimental ethos surrounding these bands has been a particularly pervasive one. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith adored Damo Suzuki, an avant-garde musician best known for his association with German band CAN, and ended up writing this song about the ground-breaking nature of his work. In a graphic and disturbing visual accompaniment to his album Broken, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor employed Bob Flanagan, an extreme performance artist. This notorious move owed much to the wildness of those such as Eye. Broken itself is regarded as a classic of the industrial music genre, which can certainly be seen as a spiritual successor to the genre-bending madness of noise.

It could be argued that the genesis of such abrasive and confrontational music was closer to home: Yorkshire-based band Throbbing Gristle, who emerged from the performance art milieu in 1975. Hanatarash, while sharing this same emphasis on pushing the boundaries, makes these bands seem mainstream by comparison. The following anecdote given online by a college radio DJ can probably tell us why:

z“I once received a frantic phone call. The person was afraid I was getting beat up and asked if I needed help. Why? I was playing Hanatarash 4 and she thought there was a fight in the studio.”

There are songs I can think of, by any of the artists I’ve listed above, that could pass on the radio as music. Bands like Throbbing Gristle, The Fall and PIL achieved a level of success that was still palatable for their hardcore fans. Others, like Nine Inch Nails, ended up collaborating with David Bowie. Hanatarash’s work defies all of these conventions, and the fact that the majority of their studio albums were recorded on broken cassette players within one day is half the reason why. Some of Eye’s onstage antics were even more shocking than the bulldozer incident. According to legend, he (accidentally) almost amputated his own leg when giving a show with a powersaw tied to his back. Not much footage of Eye’s most volatile periods remains, but there are a lot of photographs and a few surviving clips. In the following clip from Youtube, Eye screams, smashes panes of glass and raises the sort of hell Mötley Crüe, ‘the world’s most notorious rock band’, could only dream of.

Hantarash Live 1988

While Hanatarash was not exactly successful, but rather infamous, Eye did find a growing popularity with his other musical project: Boredoms, taking its name from the Buzzcocks song Boredom. After an unexpected signing with Warner Bros., Boredoms went on tours with Sonic Youth and Nirvana in the early nineties, solidifying not only Eye’s but his new band’s reputation as underground heroes. Their album Super æ finally won over the critics, and now is viewed by major music media outlets as one of the best albums of the nineties. Here’s a rare clip of Boredoms playing with Nirvana, Meat Puppets and Cali DeWitt on tour in 1993.

Nirvana and the Boredoms

Despite the purposeful incomprehensibility of Hanatarash, their influence on alternative music is plain to see. They reacted viscerally to an uneasy period in Japan’s history, characterised by a newly urban population, the Japanese Red Army, and seismic changes within what had been a strictly traditionalist social structure. Their brand of ferocity has yet to be seen again.